By AUDREY McAVOY
HONOLULU — A giant US government fuel storage facility hidden inside a mountain ridge overlooking Pearl Harbor has supplied fuel to military ships and planes plying the Pacific Ocean since World War II.
Its very existence was a secret for years. Even after it was declassified, few people paid attention to it – until late last year, when jet fuel seeped into a drinking water well, ended up in tap water and sickened thousands of people in military quarters.
Now the Navy is scrambling to contain what one US lawmaker calls a “crisis of astronomical proportions.” Native Hawaiians, veterans, liberals and conservatives across Hawaii are all pushing to shut down the tanks even though the Navy says they are vital to national security.
Military medical teams examined more than 5,900 people complaining of symptoms such as nausea, headaches and rashes. The military moved about 4,000 mostly military families to hotels and flew in water treatment systems from the continental United States.
In the first six weeks since the water crisis emerged, the Navy has spent more than $250 million addressing the public health emergency.
“Frankly, it was a nightmare and a disaster. A total disaster,” said US Representative Kaiali’i Kahele.
Kahele, a fighter pilot who still serves as an officer in the Hawaii National Guard, is the lawmaker who called the crisis astronomical during a hearing in December. An admiral said the navy was responsible.
“The Navy caused this problem, we own it and we will fix it,” Navy Rear Admiral Blake Converse, deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet, told lawmakers last month.
The Army built the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in the early 1940s by digging caverns into the mountain ridge to protect 20 fuel tanks from air attack. Each tank is about the height of a 25-story building and can hold 12.5 million gallons (47.32 million liters).
The tanks are connected to underground pipelines that send fuel approximately 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) to Pearl Harbor and to ships and planes used by the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and the navy.
The Navy has not determined how the oil ended up in the water. Authorities are investigating a theory that kerosene spilled from a ruptured pipe last May and somehow entered a fire suppression system drain pipe. They suspect that fuel then leaked from the second pipe on November 20, sending it into the drinking water well.
Within a week, military families began complaining of health issues.
Lauren Wright remembers her skin peeling, feeling nauseous and throwing up. Her symptoms only disappeared when she stopped drinking, showering and washing dishes with her house water.
“I’m a proud Navy wife, but it’s not right – to do this to your families,” she said.
Since early December, Wright, her sailor husband and their three children, ages 7 to 17, have been among thousands of military families living in Honolulu hotels paid for by the Navy so they can have clean water.
The Navy attempted to clean the oil from the contaminated well and pump it out of the aquifer. Officials are also dumping clean water into the Navy Water System – which serves 93,000 people in homes and military offices in and around Pearl Harbor. Crews visited homes and workplaces separately to flush individual water pipe systems.
But Wright said the Marines sent to flush a neighbor’s house received two days of training, did not follow a checklist for the job and had to be taught how to do the job by an experienced neighbor.
“We are all afraid of being forced into our toxic homes and back again,” she said.
The first major complaints about the oil complex came in 2014, when 27,000 gallons (123,000 liters) leaked from a tank but did not enter drinking water.
The Navy blamed contractor error and ineffective oversight. The Sierra Club of Hawaii and the Honolulu Water Department have warned that leaks could seep into one of Honolulu’s most important drinking water aquifers, located just 30 meters below the reservoirs, but the Navy resisted calls to move the facility.
The aquifer normally supplies more than 20% of the water consumed in the city. After the latest spill, the Honolulu Water Department shut down three wells to prevent oil from migrating through the aquifer into the utility’s drinking water.
If the largest of the three wells remains closed, around 400,000 people in neighborhoods such as downtown and Waikiki could face rationing and outages during the summer when water demand increases.
Last month, the Navy said it would comply with an order from Hawaii Governor David Ige, a Democrat, to empty the tanks and not use them until it is safe to do so. . But he backtracked this week and called for more time to work on solutions.
The Navy said the tank drain would not affect short-term operations in the Pacific, but commanders said they would give members of Congress a classified briefing on the longer-term implications.
Many Hawaiians, including Republican State Rep. Bob McDermott, say the dangers posed by the tanks justify getting rid of the fuel complex for good. The Navy veteran has two sons in the Navy, one son who is a Navy veteran and another currently at Marine Corps boot camp.
“I’m very close to the military, but these things are too old. It’s that simple. And if they want to look at infrastructure for the next century, they have to fill those things with dirt,” McDermott said.
Forty-eight of the 51 members of the state House of Representatives signed a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin calling for the decommissioning of the tanks. State senators are considering legislation to ban them.
Hawaii’s four-member congressional delegation won language in recent legislation requiring the Navy to study fuel storage alternatives.
Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaʻāina said public confidence in the military in Hawaii could be shaken if the Navy does not shut down the tanks for good.
“This is a watershed moment. This is a watershed moment in the military’s relationship with Hawaii,” said Kiaʻāina, who served as Undersecretary of the Interior Department during the Obama administration.
She warned that failure to close them could jeopardize the military’s ability to secure lease extensions for state lands under sites like the Pohakuloa training area, a Big Island site used by the army and the marines.
Converse, the deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet, told the Congressional hearing that the Navy is working to restore public trust.
“We recognize how these events have impacted the lives of so many people, and we are firmly committed to restoring clean drinking water in a way that builds trust and protects the land and waters of Hawaii.” , said Converse.
Hawaii has been a strategically important outpost for the U.S. military since the early 1900s, when it set up a coal refueling station for steam warships at Pearl Harbor. Today, defense spending represents 8.5% of Hawaii’s gross domestic product.
Activist protests caused the Navy to stop bombing Kahoolawe Island for target practice in 1990. This time the opposition to the military is broader as it involves water, something to which everyone is tuning in, said Colin Moore, a political science professor at the University of Hawaii.
“I don’t think they have any friends on the island at this point,” he said.